The NWSL Has the Same Old Problem
Recently I went to my first professional sporting event since the pandemic started. I went to see the Chicago Red Stars take on the Orlando Pride. For anyone who doesn't know, these are National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) teams. I was very excited to see this game, even despite the fact that two of the Red Stars' best players (LOVE YOU JULIE ERTZ & ALYSSA NEAHER!) were in disposed at the Olympics. I was frankly just happy to be supporting a team and a league that I think deserves more than what they ever get.
I don't know what it's like to go to other NWSL games or really other women's professional sports games because I don't get out much, but I thoroughly enjoy a Red Stars experience. The mascot is out in the lot hanging out with each and every tailgate group. Even in the sweltering heat. There are folks at one end of the stadium who bring their own instruments and sing self-written cheers through the entire game. It's not so crowded that you feel like you can't move or breathe or see the game. It is a really nice vibe.
However, almost immediately this game was different. The first thing we noticed was this wonderfully enthusiastic line ref. This woman was doing warmups and clearly just so excited to be doing this job. Conversely, the on field ref was a man who looked...let's say...not as pumped. About halfway through the game there were some BLATANT fouls by the Pride that were not called by the on-field ref. Two fouls resulted in a Red Stars player being taken off the field with an injury. It got to the point where two Red Stars staff got yellow cards because they were so frustrated with very obviously terrible calls. I felt the need to reassure a friend of mine who'd never been to a game before that this was atypical. If this were someone's first experience with the NWSL I don't know that they would want to keep going to games. It was brutal and frustrating and dangerous for the players.
I kept wondering to myself after the game whether I was overreacting. Soccer is a contact sport after all. But then a few days later I saw this article: NWSL Has a Refereeing Problem. The article describes a tiered system for professional soccer referees where the women's league is literally tiered lower than the men's. There is literally less prestige and pay for reffing NWSL games. It doesn't take a genius to then understand why refs see officiating a women's match as less important or even possibly insulting. And that explains the different behaviors of the two officials we witnessed at the game. The woman, who likely does not see women as inferior, excited and professional. The man, sullen and lazy. And if this weren't inherently dangerous, maybe it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but when a referee not doing their job results in not one but two injuries in a game, that is as much a safety issue as it is a respect one.
This came on the heals of the Washington Spirit's head coach being suspended after multiple allegations of verbal and emotional abuse spanning years. Several players said they left the team because they could not take his toxic behavior. This guy was allowed to operate this way for years before anyone did anything about it. And, he almost got to retire for "health reasons" and essentially bow out quietly, without facing consequences for his actions.
I do not know what this coach's reasons were for behaving this way, but it is not a crazy notion to think that resenting women was at least a contributing factor. The first thought I had when I read this article was the moment Jimmy Dugan realizes he's coaching women in A League of Their Own. He just keep yelling "GIRLS" as an epithet. The entire beginning of the movie is just illustrating all the ways he doesn't take his job seriously because he's coaching GIRLS. This is not in any way an uncommon way of thinking.
As if all that weren't enough, I then came across another article discussing how the Red Stars were fighting exhaustion because they'd participated in the Women's Cup tournament. This tourney featured teams from around the world and the Red Stars played to help "grow the game in America." So they opened themselves up to poorer performance or even injury in the regular season in order to raise the profile of women's soccer in America. I rolled my eyes at this because women's soccer, shouldn't need to do anything at this point to grow awareness and respect. Despite a poor performance at the Olympics this year, they still got a medal. And they had been undefeated for over 40 games going into the games. The USWNT wins world cups and other tournaments one after the other and the men aren't even a blip on the radar of international competition. Yet I can guarantee without even looking it up that men's games sell more tickets. No one is wondering if the MLS is legit. No refs or coaches are resenting a job in the MLS.
I can't help but think to myself, if the sport that women are arguably the best at in America. And the sport that women are indisputably better at than the men in America still has issues with equal pay, respect, and investment, what hope does any other women's sport have? The instant the USWNT faltered at the Olympics, everyone was over it. How many chances do we give men's teams of all kinds? Cubs fans gave them grace for 100 years! We were done with the women's players after less than 100min.
So what do we do? What is the solution? I would argue it's actually pretty straightforward. We live in a society that simply doesn't value women the same way it values men. Especially when women have the audacity to step into traditionally male spaces. And maybe even more especially when they end up being better than men at whatever it is they're doing. But for better or worse, we live in a capitalist society. That means that pretty much all value and respect is tied directly to money. And as the old adage says, you have to spend money to make it. So spend some freaking money! Invest in marketing women's sports. Air them on TV like you would men's sports (and charge the same for ads). Pay coaches, staff, and refs the same amount to work in women's sports as men. PAY THE PLAYERS THE SAME. Give them equitable facilities and resources. And before you reach for "but they don't bring in the same amounts so we shouldn't put the same amount of money back in" just remember that IT TAKES MONEY TO MAKE IT. We created this situation by systemically shorting women's athletics for decades. We are going to have to put some oomph behind the solution. We certainly put enough time and effort into undermining all respect for women's athletics, how about we put AT LEAST that much into fixing the problem.
And here's the thing: we should want to fix this problem. Because women's sports could be as lucrative as men's sports. We exist in a modern society where there are BILLIONS of human beings from whom you can sell tickets, merch, streaming subscriptions, etc. And if a portion of them aren't captured yet with men's sports, why would we leave money on the table? Why, in a red-blooded capitalist society, would we not want to take advantage of an opportunity to expand a business? It might be a cynical take, but at this point, I'm a cynic.